Three Who Paid by Max Brand by Max Brand - Read Online

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Three Who Paid - Max Brand

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35

Chapter 1

Of the four men, Hal Sinclair was the vital spirit. In the actual labor of mining, the mighty arms and tireless back Of Quade had been a treasure. For knowledge of camping, hunting, cooking, and all the lore of the trail, Lowrie stood as a valuable resource; and Sandersen was the dreamy, resolute spirit, who had hoped for gold in those mountains until he came to believe his hope. He had gathered these three stalwarts to help him to his purpose, and if he lived he would lead yet others to failure.

Hope never died in this tall, gaunt man, with a pale-blue eye the color of the horizon dusted with the first morning mist. He was the very spirit of lost causes, full of apprehensions, foreboding, superstitions. A hunch might make him journey five hundred miles; a snort of his horse could make him give up the trail and turn back.

But Hal Sinclair was the antidote for Sandersen. He was still a boy at thirty—big, handsome, thoughtless, with a heart as clean as new snow. His throat was so parched by that day's ride that he dared not open his lips to sing, as he usually did. He compromised by humming songs new and old, and when his companions cursed his noise, he contented himself with talking softly to his horse, amply rewarded when the pony occasionally lifted a tired ear to the familiar voice.

Failure and fear were the blight on the spirit of the rest. They had found no gold worth looking at twice, and, lingering too long in the search, they had rashly turned back on a shortcut across the desert. Two days before, the blow had fallen. They found Sawyer's water hole nearly dry, just a little pool in the center, with caked, dead mud all around it. They drained that water dry and struck on. Since then the water famine had gained a hold on them; another water hole had not a drop in it. Now they could only aim at the cool, blue mockery of the mountains before them, praying that the ponies would last to the foothills.

Still Hal Sinclair could sing softly to his horse and to himself; and, though his companions cursed his singing, they blessed him for it in their hearts. Otherwise the white, listening silence of the desert would have crushed them; otherwise the lure of the mountains would have maddened them and made them push on until the horses would have died within five miles of the labor; otherwise the pain in their slowly swelling throats would have taken their reason. For thirst in the desert carries the pangs of several deaths— death from fire, suffocation, and insanity.

No wonder the three scowled at Hal Sinclair when he drew his revolver.

My horse is gun-shy, he said, but I'll bet the rest of you I can drill a horn off that skull before you do.

Of course it was a foolish challenge. Lowrie was the gun expert of the party. Indeed he had reached that dangerous point of efficiency with firearms where a man is apt to reach for his gun to decide an argument. Now Lowrie followed the direction of Sinclair's gesture. It was the skull of a steer, with enormous branching horns. The rest of the skeleton was sinking into the sands.

Don't talk fool talk, said Lowrie. Save your wind and your ammunition. You may need 'em for yourself, son!

That grim suggestion made Sandersen and Quade shudder. But a grin spread on the broad, ugly face of Lowrie, and Sinclair merely shrugged his shoulders.

I'll try you for a dollar.

Nope.

Five dollars?

Nope.

You're afraid to try, Lowrie!

It was a smiling challenge, but Lowrie flushed. He had a childish pride in his skill with weapons.

All right, kid. Get ready!

He brought a Colt smoothly into his hand and balanced it dexterously, swinging it back and forth between his eyes and the target to make ready for a snap shot.

Ready! cried Hal Sinclair excitedly.

Lowrie's gun spoke first, and it was the only one that was fired, for Sinclair's horse was gun-shy indeed. At the explosion he pitched straight into the air with a squeal of mustang fright and came down bucking. The others forgot to look for the results of Lowrie's shot. They reined their horses away from the pitching broncho disgustedly. Sinclair was a fool to use up the last of his mustang's strength in this manner. But Hal Sinclair had forgotten the journey ahead. He was rioting in the new excitement cheering the broncho to new exertions. And it was in the midst of that flurry of action that the great blow fell. The horse stuck his right forefoot into a hole.

To the eyes of the others it seemed to happen slowly. The mustang was halted in the midst of a leap, tugged at a leg that seemed glued to the ground, and then buckled suddenly and collapsed on one side. They heard that awful, muffled sound of splintering bone and then the scream of the tortured horse.

But they gave no heed to that. Hal Sinclair in the fall had been pinned beneath his mount. The huge strength of Quade sufficed to budge the writhing mustang. Lowrie and Sandersen drew Sinclair's pinioned right leg clear and stretched him on the sand.

It was Lowrie who shot the horse.

You've done a brown turn, said Sandersen fiercely to the prostrate figure of Sinclair. Four men and three hosses. A fine partner you are, Sinclair!

Shut up, said Hal. Do something for that foot of mine.

Lowrie cut the boot away dexterously and turned out the foot. It was painfully twisted to one side and lay limp on the sand.

Do something! said Sinclair, groaning.

The three looked at him, at the dead horse, at the white-hot desert, at the distant, blue mountains.

What the devil can we do? You've spoiled all our chances, Sinclair.

Ride on then and forget me! But tie up that foot before you go. I can't stand it!

Silently, with ugly looks, they obeyed. Secretly every one of the three was saying to himself that this folly of Sinclair's had ruined all their chances of getting free from the sands alive. They looked across at the skull of the steer. It was still there, very close. It seemed to have grown larger, with a horrible significance. And each instinctively put a man's skull beside it, bleached and white, with shadow eyes. Quade did the actual bandaging of Sinclair's foot, drawing tight above the ankle, so that some of the circulation was shut off; but it eased the pain, and now Sinclair sat up.

I'm sorry, he said, mighty sorry, boys!

There was no answer. He saw by their lowered eyes that they were hating him. He felt it in the savage grip of their hands, as they lifted him and put him into Quade's saddle. Quade was the largest, and it was mutely accepted that he should be the first to walk, while Sinclair rode. It was accepted by all except Quade, that is to say. That big man strode beside his horse, lifting his eyes now and then to glare remorselessly at Sinclair.

It was bitter work walking through that sand. The heel crunched into it, throwing a strain heavily on the back of the thigh, and then the ball of the foot slipped back in the midst of a stride. Also the labor raised the temperature of the body incredibly. With no wind stirring it was suffocating.

And the day was barely beginning!

Barely two hours before the sun had been merely a red ball on the edge of the desert. Now it was low in the sky, but bitterly hot. And their mournful glances presaged the horror that was coming in the middle of the day.

Deadly silence fell on that group. They took their turns by the watch, half an hour at a time, walking and then changing horses, and, as each man took his turn on foot, he cast one long glance of hatred at Sinclair.

He was beginning to know them for the first time. They were chance acquaintances. The whole trip had been undertaken by him on the spur of the moment; and, as far as lay in his cheery, thoughtless nature, he had come to regret it. The work of the trail had taught him that he was mismated in this company, and the first stern test was stripping the masks from them. He saw three ugly natures, three small, cruel souls.

It came Sandersen's turn to walk.

Maybe I could take a turn walking, suggested Sinclair.

It was the first time in his life that he had had to shift any burden onto the shoulders of another except his brother, and that was different. Ah, how different! He sent up one brief prayer for Riley Sinclair. There was a man who would have walked all day that his brother might ride, and at the end of the day that man of iron would be as fresh as those who had ridden. Moreover, there would have been no questions, no spite, but a free giving. Mutely he swore that he would hereafter judge all men by the stern and honorable spirit of Riley.

And then that sad offer: Maybe I could take a turn walking, Sandersen. I could hold on to a stirrup and hop along some way!

Lowrie and Quade sneered, and Sandersen retorted fiercely: Shut up! You know it ain't possible, but I ought to call your bluff.

He had no answer, for it was not possible. The twisted foot was a steady torture.

In another half hour he asked for water, as they paused for Sandersen to mount, and Lowrie to take his turn on foot. Sandersen snatched the canteen which Quade reluctantly passed to the injured man.

Look here! said Sandersen. We got to split up on this. You sit there and ride and take it easy. Me and the rest has to go through hell. You take some of the hell yourself. You ride, but we'll have the water, and they ain't much of it left at that!

Sinclair glanced helplessly at the others. Their faces were set in stern agreement.

Slowly the sun crawled up to the center of the sky and stuck there for endless hours, it seemed, pouring down a fiercer heat. And the foothills still wavered in blue outlines that meant distance—terrible distance.

Out of the east came a cloud of dust. The restless eye of Sandersen saw it first, and a harsh shout of joy came from the others. Quade was walking. He lifted his arms to the cloud of dust as if it were a vision of mercy. To Hal Sinclair it seemed that cold water was already running over his tongue and over the hot torment of his foot. But, after that first cry of hoarse joy, a silence was on the others, and gradually he saw a shadow gather.

It ain't wagons, said Lowrie bitterly at length. And it ain't riders; it comes too fast for that. And it ain't the wind; it comes too slow. But it ain't men. You can lay to that!

Still they hoped against hope until the growing cloud parted and lifted enough for them to see a band of wild horses sweeping along at a steady lope. They sighted the men and veered swiftly to the left. A moment later there was only a thin trail of flying dust before the four. Three pairs of eyes turned on Sinclair and silently cursed him as if this were his fault.

Those horses are aiming at water, he said. Can't we follow 'em?

They're aiming for a hole fifty miles away. No, we can't follow 'em!

They started on again, and now, after that cruel moment of hope, it was redoubled labor. Quade was cursing thickly with every other step. When it came his turn to ride he drew Lowrie to one side, and they conversed long together, with side glances at Sinclair.

Vaguely he guessed the trend of their conversation, and vaguely he suspected their treacherous meanness. Yet he dared not speak, even had his pride permitted.

It was the same story over again when Lowrie walked. Quade rode aside with Sandersen, and again, with the wolfish side glances, they eyed the injured man, while they talked. At the next halt they faced him. Sandersen was the spokesman.

We've about made up our minds, Hal, he said deliberately, that you got to be dropped behind for a time. We're going on to find water. When we find it we'll come back and get you. Understand?

Sinclair moistened his lips, but said nothing.

Then Sandersen's voice grew screechy with sudden passion. Say, do you want three men to die for one? Besides, what good could we do?

You don't mean it, declared Sinclair. Sandersen, you don't mean it! Not alone out here! You boys can't leave me out here stranded. Might as well shoot me!

All were silent. Sandersen looked to Lowrie, and the latter stared at the sand. It was Quade who acted.

Stepping to the side of Sinclair he lifted him easily in his powerful arms and lowered him to the sands. Now, keep your nerve, he advised. We're coming back.

He stumbled a little over the words. It's all of us or none of us, he said. Come on, boys. My conscience is clear!

They turned their horses hastily to the hills, and, when the voice of Sinclair rang after them, not one dared turn his head.

Partners, for the sake of all the work we've done together—don't do this!

In a shuddering unison they spurred their horses and raised the weary brutes into a gallop; the voice faded into a wail behind them. And still they did not look back.

For that matter they dared not look at one another, but pressed on, their eyes riveted to the hills. Once Lowrie turned his head to mark the position of the sun. Once Sandersen, in the grip of some passion of remorse or of fear of death, bowed his head with a strange moan. But, aside from that, there was no sound or sign between them until, hardly an hour and a half after leaving Sinclair, they found water.

At first they thought it was a mirage. They turned away from it by mutual assent. But the horses had scented drink, and they became unmanageable. Five minutes later the animals were up to their knees in the muddy water, and the men were floundering breast deep, drinking, drinking, drinking.

After that they sat about the brink staring at one another in a stunned fashion. There seemed no joy in that delivery, for some reason.

I guess Sinclair will be a pretty happy gent when he sees us coming back, said Sandersen, smiling faintly.

There was no response from the others for a moment. Then they began to justify themselves hotly.

It was your idea, Quade.

Why, curse your soul, weren't you glad to take the idea? Are you going to blame it on to me?

What's the blame? asked Lowrie. Ain't we going to bring him water?

Suppose he ever tells we left him? We'd have to leave these parts pronto!

He'll never tell. We'll swear him.

If he does talk, I'll stop him pretty sudden, said Lowrie, tapping his holster significantly.

Will you? What if he puts that brother of his on your trail?

Lowrie swallowed hard. Well— he began, but said no more.

They mounted in a new silence and took the back trail slowly. Not until the evening began to fall did they hurry, for fear the darkness would make them lose the position of their comrade. When they were quite near the place, the semidarkness had come, and Quade began to shout in his tremendous voice. Then they would listen, and sometimes they heard an echo, or a voice like an echo, always at a great distance.

Maybe he's started crawling and gone the wrong way. He should have sat still, said Lowrie, because—

Oh, Lord, broke in Sandersen, I knew it! I been seeing it all the way! He pointed to a figure of a man lying on his back in the sand, with his arms thrown out crosswise. They dismounted and found Hal Sinclair dead and cold. Perhaps the insanity of thirst had taken him; perhaps he had figured it out methodically that it was better to end things before the madness came. There was a certain stern repose about his face that favored this supposition. He seemed much older. But, whatever the reason, Hal Sinclair had shot himself cleanly through the head.

You see that face? asked Lowrie with curious quiet. Take a good look. You'll see it ag'in.

A superstitious horror seized on Sandersen. What d'you mean, Lowrie? What d'you mean?

I mean this! The way he looks now he's a ringer for Riley Sinclair. And, you mark me, we're all going to see Riley Sinclair, face to face, before we die!

He'll never know, said Quade, the stolid. Who knows except us? And will one of us ever talk? He laughed at the idea.

I dunno, whispered Sandersen. I dunno, gents. But we done an awful thing, and we're going to pay—we're going to pay!

Chapter 2

Their trails divided after that. Sandersen and Quade started back for Sour Creek. At the parting of the ways Lowrie's last word was for Sandersen.

You started this party, Sandersen. If they's any hell coming out of it, it'll fall chiefly on you. Remember, because I got one of your own hunches!

After that Lowrie headed straight across the mountains, traveling as much by instinct as by landmarks. He was one of those men who are born to the trail. He stopped in at Four Pines, and there he told the story on which he and Sandersen and Quade had agreed. Four Pines would spread that tale by telegraph, and Riley Sinclair would be advised beforehand. Lowrie had no desire to tell the gunfighter in person of the passing of Hal Sinclair. Certainly he would not be the first man to tell the story.

He reached Colma late in the afternoon, and a group instantly formed around him on the veranda of the old hotel. Four Pines had indeed spread the story, and the crowd wanted verification. He replied as smoothly as he could. Hal Sinclair had broken his leg in a fall from his horse, and they had bound it up as well as they could. They had tied him on his horse, but he could not endure the pain of travel. They stopped, nearly dying from thirst. Mortification set in. Hal Sinclair died in forty-eight hours after the halt.

Four Pines had accepted the tale. There had been more deadly stories than this connected with the desert. But Pop Hansen, the proprietor, drew Lowrie to one side.

Keep out of Riley's way for a while. He's all het up. He was fond of Hal, you know, and he takes this bad. Got an ugly way of asking questions, and —

The truth is the truth, protested Lowrie. Besides—

I know—I know. But jest make yourself scarce for a couple of days.

I'll keep on going, Pop. Thanks!

Never mind, ain't no hurry. Riley's out of town and won't be back for a day or so. But, speaking personal, I'd rather step into a nest of rattlers than talk to Riley, the way he's feeling now.

Lowrie climbed slowly up the stairs to his room, thinking very hard. He knew the repute of Riley Sinclair, and he knew the man to be even worse than reputation, one of those stern souls who exact an eye for an eye—and even a little more.

Once in his room he threw himself on his bed. After all there was no need for a panic. No one would ever learn the truth. To make surety doubly sure he would start early in the dawn and strike out for far trails. The thought had hardly come to him when he dismissed it. A flight would call down suspicion on him, and Riley Sinclair would be the first to suspect. In that case distance would not save him, not from that hard and tireless rider.

To help compose his thoughts he went to the washstand and bathed his hot face. He was drying himself when there was a tap on the door.

Can I come in? asked a shrill voice.

He answered in the affirmative, and a youngster stepped into the room.

You're Lowrie?

Yep.

They's a gent downstairs wants you to come down and see him.

Who is it?

I dunno. We just moved in from Conway. I can point him out to you on the street.

Lowrie followed the boy to the window, and there, surrounded by half a dozen serious-faced men, stood Riley Sinclair, tall, easy, formidable. The sight of Sinclair filled Lowrie with dismay. Pushing a silver coin into the hand of the boy, he said: Tell him—tell him—I'm coming right down.

As soon as the boy disappeared, Lowrie ran to the window which opened on the side of the house. When he looked down his hope fled. At one time there had been a lean-to shed running along that side of the building. By the roof of it he could have got to the ground unseen. Now he remembered that it had been torn down the year before; there was a straight and perilous drop beneath the window. As for the stairs, they led almost to the front door of the building. Sinclair would be sure to see him if he went down there.

Of the purpose of the big man he had no doubt. His black guilt was so apparent to his own mind that it seemed impossible that the keen eyes of Sinclair had not looked into the story of Hal's broken leg and seen a lie. Besides, the invitation through a messenger seemed a hollow lure. Sinclair wished to fight him and kill him before witnesses who would attest that Lowrie had been the first to go for his gun.

Fight? Lowrie looked down at his hand and found that the very wrist was quivering. Even at his best he felt that he would have no chance. Once he had seen Sinclair in action in Lew Murphy's old saloon, had seen Red Jordan get the drop, and had watched Sinclair shoot his man deliberately through the shoulder. Red Jordan was a cripple for life.

Suppose he walked boldly down, told his story, and trusted to the skill of his lie? No, he knew his color would pale if he faced Sinclair. Suppose he refused to fight? Better to die than be shamed in the mountain country.

He hurried to the window for another look into the street, and he found that Sinclair had disappeared. Lowrie's knees buckled under